Readings in Popular and Practical Philosophy

The Project.

With the translation of Proudhon’s Of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church now halfway through its first major revision, the time appears ripe for a more active sort of sharing of the text, in the form of a group reading. That is, however, no small task, given the length and complexity of the work — and the fact that I’m still wrestling the other half into shape, along with a variety of other related texts. So I’m going to try to take my cues from what work during the Constructing Anarchisms project, set myself a task that ought to facilitate the readings of others, establish some forums in which discussion is encouraged and then extend a general invitation to others to play along to whatever extend suits them.

The twelve Studies that made up the work in its original 1858 edition contain 68 chapters and a Prologue. The 1860 revised, expanded and corrected edition adds an opening Program, lengthy explanatory notes and twelve “News of the Revolution” sections applying the analysis in the various studies to current events, as well as some expansions in the main text. We also need to account for the unfinished supplement to the Studies on Love and Marriage, originally titled “News of the Revolution: Of the Pornocracy in Modern Times,” which even in its unfinished state sprawled to a length greater than that of most of the Studies in their original form. The total is roughly 775,000 words, which is, at the somewhat glacial rate usually managed by online reading groups, probably well over a year’s worth of material. Given that, it may make as much sense to embrace the size of the task and set a pace that will allow readers to follow along without too much extraordinary effort.

The next natural phase in the development of the translation of Justice involves another round of even closer reading, a considerable amount of annotation, the development of a glossary and the beginnings of the work of reconnection, by which the connections between this text and the rest of Proudhon’s work can be explored. So that’s the set of tasks I intend to take up, beginning this next week, sharing the results as they are available, on a roughly chapter-by-chapter basis, with the occasional side-trip into other texts when they seems appropriate. The process will be very similar to what I did for the group reading of What is Property? a few years ago, probably resulting in both similar notes and corrected texts.

Forums open for discussion will include the Proudhon Seminar group of Facebook and r/mutualism on Reddit. I will post links on Mastodon, Raddle and Twitter, various places on Facebook and Reddit and in public posts on Patreon. Where hashtags are useful, I’ll use #readingproudhon to identify relevant posts. So, once again, the format will be to let folks read over my shoulder, to whatever extent they desire, and to discuss the work wherever our paths cross online. I wish I had faith and patience in more formal arrangements, but success in those settings requires volumes of cheerleading energy that I will confess in advance that I probably don’t have in me, when all of the other ongoing work is done.

The Text.

I am framing this examination of Proudhon’s works in terms of “Readings in Popular and Practical Philosophy,” which is a reference to the collective series titles given to Justice, War and Peace and Theory of Taxation, which appeared as studies numbered 1-15. That framing points specifically to the “revised, corrected and expanded” second edition of 1860, but it also highlights my reasons for preferring that text from a modern anarchist perspective.

When we examine the surviving manuscripts for Justice, we discover that the work went through at least three phases. A first, ultimately unpublished version of the work seems to have been broken down into twelve “Letters,” rather than “Studies.” It appears that the section on progress may have included material not included in the 1858 edition, perhaps the equivalent of a second letters, which was then followed by letters on political and religious indifference, as well as a different treatment of the question of moral sanction.

I have only begun to look at the manuscripts for this edition, but it is certainly interesting to discover that perhaps the Studies on Love and Marriage were not always the conclusion toward which the first nine studies were tending.

We have access to both handwritten manuscripts and page proofs — partial in both cases — for the 1858 first published edition of the work, so we can also point to some material — passages on literature recently published by the Société P.-J. Proudhon, as well as other odds and ends apparently intended for the Studies on Love and Marriage — that didn’t survive the final editing process. Proudhon seems to have consistently struggled to keep the final sections of Justice from sprawling well beyond the length he intended for the work. He eventually tamed those two studies and appears to have substantially rewritten the final study on moral sanction, but finally left it as a series of “fragments.” Still, the resulting work is an impressive one.

There are undoubtedly reasons to prefer the 1858 edition — and one of the scholars best acquainted with the work has assured me more than once that he does. The revisions in the 1860 edition are, for the most part, not radical. The notes, while useful, are generally too long to consult easily while reading the work and the “News of the Revolution” sections are so focused on the events of Proudhon’s time that they may be inaccessible to most modern readers. Proudhon’s reframing of the work as the first twelve studies in an ongoing series may even add a degree of contradiction or incoherence to the work. I remain convinced, however, that, for modern anarchists, the 1860 edition of Justice is the centerpiece of Proudhon’s work as a work of anarchism avant la lettre.

In order to understand the chronology of Proudhon’s works, it will be useful for students to consult at least the short biography by his friend J.-A. Langlois, the list of French works established by the Société P.-J. Proudhon and the list of my draft translations at All of the accounts of Proudhon’s phases and watersheds, including his own, undoubtedly obscure important elements of his development, but, with that fact in mind, we still need to establish a general narrative.

Prior to 1840, we find manuscripts on a variety of subjects, testifying to Proudhon’s wide-ranging interests, and The Celebration of Sunday, which is generally treated as a kind of precursor work, but probably deserves more attention from anarchists, if only because it contains Proudhon’s first formulation of the idea that property is theft.

in the years 1840-1842, Proudhon was occupied with the memoirs on property, as well as his defenses against critics and the courts.

In 1840, Proudhon had assured the members of the Academy of Besançon that his work on property was just a phase.

Gentlemen, the publication of that work was commanded of me by the order of my philosophical studies. This is what the future will demonstrate to you. One last Memoir remains for me to compose on the question of Property; that work accomplished, I would pursue, without turning aside from my path, my studies in philology, metaphysics and moral science.

And, while he did not escape the question of property so easily, he did turn to broader questions of philosophy and social science after the third memoir on property. The Creation of Order in Humanity (1843) and the two-volume System of Economic Contradictions (1846), while very different, both demonstrate the expansion and refinement of his project. 

1848 brought the Revolution, then political service, which led to imprisonment and exile. After some years of publications and activism addressing more immediate sorts of reform, including the famous mutual credit proposals, prison served as an occasion for a deeper study of political economy and a consolidation of his thinking on a variety of topics. His project of a course on political economy never came to fruition, but we should note the intention and note as well that the manuscripts he left remain a largely untapped resource.

We know that Proudhon marked one watershed in his own career around 1853:

From 1839 to 1852, I have had what is called my critical period, taking this word in the lofty sense it is given in Germany. As a man must not repeat himself and I strive essentially not to outlive my usefulness, I am assembling the material for new studies and I ready myself to soon begin a new period I shall call, if you like, my positive period or period of construction.

Taking that as a divide, we we treat The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851) and The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat of December 2, 1852 as the final critical works, with The Philosophy of Progress: Program opening his positive or constructive phase — or perhaps treat the final work as a philosophical summary of the earlier period.

What followed most immediately was Proudhon’s Manual of the Stock-Market Speculator, originally published anonymously, and a book on railroads, neither of which really announced a new era for his project. But when Justice in the Revolution and in the Church did arrive in 1858, it was clearly his most ambitious and lengthiest work to date, with its twelve studies spread across three volumes.

In 1859, he said this about the work:

Since I have been in Belgium, I have prepared the continuation of my studies and publications for the rest of my career, in such a way as to include everything I want without ever abandoning the thought or disturbing the economy. After having practiced criticism and logic for twenty years, I have published a last work which contains, for the first time, the continuation of my positive principles, all of my affirmations, such as in their most general expression they could result for me from previous data: this work is my book of Justice. Criticism no doubt still holds a large place in it, but nothing more than what was needed to motivate conclusions.

This seems to be clear testimony that, in Proudhon’s own mind, the page had been turned and a new phase of his work begun. However, one is perhaps most interesting from the point of view of our own present project is what he said in the very next line of the letter:

Now, the time has come to popularize all that…

I have collected bits of “Correspondence related to the Studies in Popular Philosophy,” which give further insights into Proudhon’s thought as he began to his publications for the rest of his life, which readers may find useful. The same is true of the notes regarding a completed, but unpublished 1859 work, How Business is Going in France, which I have partially translated and which appears to have been a discarded first attempt to launch the Studies in Popular Philosophy.

The details about Proudhon’s efforts in 1859 to make yet another major change in his project are scattered in notebooks and manuscripts. It will undoubtedly be some time before I feel at all comfortable characterizing the events of that year. But what is clear is that, in a fairly short period of time, Proudhon seems to have gone from proposing a kind of popular sequel to Justice, through what appear to have been fairly wide-ranging drafts of that project, to the idea of repurposing Justice itself as the popular sequel.

At face value, what that gives us is two versions of the same text — not particularly different, as I have observed — presumably serving two rather different audiences and ends. If we identify the second version of Justice as popular, perhaps the first question raised is how we should characterize the original edition. My own approach to the answer is perhaps a bit contentious, but others may find it useful.

Some of the difficulties with the earlier works arise from the fact that they are addressed to very particular audiences. I continue to think, for example, that anarchists have not paid nearly enough attention to the fact that The General Idea of the Revolution is explicitly addressed to the bourgeoisie. In his critical period, Proudhon found occasion to address his critiques to just about everyone who might listen — as well as some, like the Emperor, who had already proven that they almost certainly would not. Some of this may have been artifice, as Proudhon was saved from conviction in one of his early trials precisely because it was believed that his message was not a popular one, but we also have to acknowledge his well-founded concerns that, without access to more useful forms of education, the masses — what he often called the Democracy — were perhaps beyond the reach of his work.

In any event, one of the characteristics of many of the critical works is that they are at least framed as appeals to those in power, whether or not Proudhon expected such appeals to fall on anything but deaf ears. And this is also true of Justice, which ends, after so much devastating critique of the Church, with the proposal of a new pact, according to which Proudhon promises to honor the Church if it will honor spirit of the Revolution. We can feel safe, given all that has come before, in believing that Proudhon is in no danger of having his proposal accepted, but there is no question that the Church is the audience of the work in the final pages of the 1858 edition — and the only thing different in 1860 is the addition of the final Appendix.

I suppose I should say that the most important difference between the conclusions of the two editions is the fact that the 1860 edition begins with the new section, “Popular Philosophy: Program,” which at least affirms in strong terms the ability of the people to philosophize. The material added to each of the studies shows Proudhon’s critique of the Church remains unrelenting, which also has to condition our understanding of that conclusion. Still, the necessity of reading the 1860 edition as not simply a revision, but an appropriation and recontextualization poses real difficulties for students of the text.

Reading Strategies.

I have produced a number of documents that relate to the difficulties of translating and interpreting Proudhon’s Justice. Of these, I recommend at least a glance at the following:

The most important issue is probably the various ways in which the work and the vocabulary within it serve various kinds of double functions, which must be kept in mind. The work itself is, as I have said, appropriated and in some ways repurposed in the 1860 edition — although there seem to be reasons to believe that the readdressing of the work to a popular audience is not ever quite complete. The key terms — as I have mentioned in more detail in the translator’s notes to the two pdfs — are generally made to serve both the Church and the Revolution, so that the finer nuances of meaning in any given sentence or phrase can be hard to capture. It is almost certainly not accidental that a number of the words Proudhon has placed at the center of his work are among those best known for more-or-less irreducible polysemy.

There doesn’t seem to be any escape from reading strategies more patient and flexible than perhaps we are accustomed to bringing to most political theory. The compensation is that the text really seems to me to be one that rewards the extra effort.

Preparation for the First Study.

My hope is to begin posting notes for the Program around December 1. In the meantime, I would encourage readers to take a look at the posts linked above and the biography that provided the occasion for the work, Eugène de Mirecourt’s The Contemporaries: Proudhon. My plan is to return briefly to The Philosophy of Progress, to explore whether or not we should think of the two texts labeled “Program” as in any way connected. Those who haven’t read the work would almost certainly benefit from a look, as Proudhon lays out some philosophical concerns not covered in the Program of Justice.

With a bit of luck, I’ll post some notes about The Philosophy of Progress — and any eleventh-hour thoughts on how best to begin with Justice — in four or five days.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.